The non-conference schedule came to an end Saturday with Kentucky's 75-73 victory over archrival Louisville.
This season's non-conference schedule left a lot of concerns in the Big Blue Nation, although everyone is more than thrilled with wins over Duke and Louisville. The SEC schedule is always much tougher than it's given credit for by the national media and this season will be no different.
While any conference game, or the occasional non-conference game during the conference season, will be difficult, and could always be a loss there are a few that stand out remaining on the 'Cats schedule.
@ LSU January 5th
The Tigers have been a little bit of a disappointment to this point in the season with the exception of their freshmen phenom, Ben Simmons. However, things are beginning to turn around in Baton Rouge as they have finally gotten to full strength with Keith Hornsby and Craig Victor ll joining the team.
Hornsby is averaging 17.3 points per game in his first four games back including 42 percent from three-point range, while Victor is averaging 12 points and 3.7 rebounds in his first three games back. The two returning players add to Simmons' supporting cast of Tim Quarterman, averaging 12.5 points, and Antonio Blakeney, averaging 10.8 points. Simmons leads the team in points (19.1), rebounds (13.1), and assists (5.8).
LSU will want to push the pace and get to their average point production of 84.9 per game which ranks 20th nationally. The Tigers haven't really been tested in their last three games while they've been at full strength against lesser competition; however, they play Wake Forest and at Vandy before their meeting with Kentucky.
It'll be important for Kentucky to contain Simmons and Hornsby from going off and beating them and for Kentucky's younger players to adjust to the road atmosphere in SEC games with it being the first conference road game of the season. At the same time, it'll be important for LSU's players to adjust to a team like Kentucky coming to their home floor and the pressure that surrounds that type of game.
Prediction: Kentucky 78-70
@ Kansas January 30th
The Jayhawks are 10-1 on the season and ranked second in the country with their only loss coming against number one Michigan State. They are led by three veteran players who are all playing at a very high level halfway through the season: Wayne Selden Jr., Perry Ellis, and Frank Mason lll.
Selden is leading the team, averaging 15.5 points, including 55 percent from three-point range. Ellis is averaging 15.2 points and 5.9 rebounds while Mason is averaging 13.3 points and 5.6 assists. Also, super freshman Cheick Diallo is beginning to contribute as well averaging 6.5 points and 3.3 rebounds.
Going on the road to Phog Allen Fieldhouse is difficult. Bill Self is 186-9 at home since he's been head coach at Kansas including a current streak of 24 straight home wins that could be at 29 by the time the 'Cats come calling. The Jayhawks will also try to push the pace, as they are the fourth-highest scoring team in the country averaging 88 points per game including 46.3% from three-point range, second in the country.
There is one common opponent between UK and KU in UCLA. Kansas beat UCLA in Maui 92-73, whereas the Bruins beat the Cats 87-77. For Kentucky to win this game the 'Cats must play near flawless.
Prediction: Kansas 86-78
@ South Carolina February 13th
The Gamecocks have been not only the surprise of the SEC but arguably the entire country with their 11-0 record. Their schedule hasn't exactly been murderer's row; however, they've beaten everyone that has stepped on the floor with them to this point and that's impressive.
Frank Martin has a very balanced attack with four players averaging 12 points (Michael Carrera, Mindaugas Kacinas, Duane Notice, and Laimonas Chatkevicius) and Sindarius Thornwell averaging 11 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 3.8 assists. Carrera and Kacinas also average six rebounds apiece.
South Carolina also uses the three-pointer as a strength, shooting 40.9% as a team ranking 14th in the country. The 'Cats and Gamecocks have one similar opponent, South Florida. South Carolina won that game 81-63. I doubt that there will be an opportunity for the 'Cats to end the undefeated season of South Carolina but you never know.
Kentucky will have to control the glass in this game and not go crazy from hearing "Sand Storm" incessantly.
Prediction: Kentucky 68-63
@ Texas A&M February 20th
The Aggies are 9-2 to this point of the season and have been what most expected them to be, the second or third best team in the SEC. They have signature wins over Gonzaga and Baylor already this season. They're led by Danuel House averaging 15.5 points and 5.5 rebounds, and Jalen Jones, averaging 15.4 points and 6.4 rebounds. Tyler Davis is another double-figure scorer for the Aggies averaging 11.7 points, while Alex Caruso leads the team averaging 4.7 assists.
Last season at Texas A&M was a huge scare for the undefeated 'Cats as they escaped in double OT with a win. I expect this season's trip to Texas to be another hard fought game. The two teams share one common opponent in Arizona State who beat A&M 67-54. Kentucky must protect the ball and keep A&M's talented guards from getting out in transition in this game.
Prediction: Kentucky 72-70
@ Vanderbilt February 27th
Vandy has been up and down this season making the finals of Maui despite the injury of star big man Luke Kornet. With the loss of Kornet for several weeks, the Commodores are led by Wade Baldwin lV, averaging 14.6 points and Damion Jones, averaging 12.5 points and 6.5 rebounds.
By the time this game gets here it will be close to time for Kornet to return, so don't be surprised if he plays in this game and plays well. Vandy will also use the three-pointer a lot as they have nine players on the team that shoot at least 40% from three-point range and 40.7% as a team which is 18th in the country. Memorial Gym in Nashville has always been a tough place for the 'Cats to play.
It's the only place in the country where the benches are still on the baseline which can be a real challenge for players that aren't used to it. Kentucky must close out on shooters in this game and get to the rim on the offensive side of the ball.
Prediction: Vandy 78-75
@ Florida March 1st
The Gators are 8-3 under first-year coach Mike White with their three losses all being to ranked teams. The Gators are led by Dorian Finney-Smith, averaging 14 points and 7.8 rebounds. John Egbunu and Devin Robinson both average eleven points and over six rebounds a game. Also, guard Kasey Hill is back leading the Gators averaging almost four assists a game.
The Gators have been the biggest rival to the 'Cats over the last several years with Billy Donovan at the helm. With him gone it takes a little away from it; however, you can bet the 'Rowdy Reptiles" will be out in full force when the 'Cats come calling on the first of March.
This is a game that Kentucky will be the more talented team at most positions and as long as they keep the turnovers to a minimum should be a good way to kick off March and a deep run in the tournament.
Prediction: Kentucky 80-72